Chicken Scratch Fever

Week 13: Geez, it’s hot!

Gigi, Nellie and Loretta dive into a cool watermelon.

Gigi, Nellie and Loretta dive into a cool watermelon.

Summer has arrived a couple days early, with scorching hot temperatures.

Today it was in the high 80s most of the day, then inching into the low 90s around dinnertime. I kept a close eye on them throughout the day, looking for obvious signs of heat stress.

Around 5 p.m., I went back out to check on the birds. The weather sensor I have on the coop registered 90 degrees in the shade. I took a close look, and immediately saw that Loretta was panting. Gigi and Nelli also had their beaks open, and Loretta was slightly drooping her wings in an effort to cool off.

Gigi spots a mulberry. Yum!

Gigi spots a mulberry. Yum!

I grabbed the waterer, and brought it into the kitchen to refill it with cold water. To give it some lasting power, I placed a frozen water bottle on the inside before putting the waterer back in the coop. Then I ran up to the local market to buy cold watermelon. I know the girls love it, and I was thinking that eating something cold might lower their body temperature.

The girls rebounded quickly, and soon sauntered out for a stroll in the yard. It wasn’t long before they found a field of fallen mulberries on the ground. They munched for a while, most likely surprised by their good fortune. Watermelon AND mulberries in the same day???

It’s supposed to be warm tomorrow, too, so I bought an extra watermelon. The girls will love me for it.

In the garden

Baby cherry tomatoes are starting to grow.

Baby cherry tomatoes are starting to grow.

A couple weeks in, we are starting to see growth in the garden.

Today we spotted several baby cherry tomatoes on the vine. Also we spotted a handful of flowers on the cucumber plants, which are now growing up high enough to touch the trellis. Did I mention the corn is knee high?

The greatest surprise is that the cauliflower plants now have baby cauliflowers growing in them. I don’t know how else to explain it, but there’s a small white ball in the heart of the plant. This greatly excited Matt. I took a photo and sent it to him, and somehow I imagine that greatly disrupted his morning at work. I didn’t want the cauliflower plants because, well, I hate cauliflower. But it’s Matt’s favorite vegetable, like, ever! So this development is huge, and a victory of sorts for him!

The itty-bitty cauliflower.

The itty-bitty cauliflower.

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Week 12: Hey, that’s my foot!

Nellie pecks at Jilli's gardening shoe. Mmmm. Better than worms!

Nellie pecks at Jilli’s gardening shoe. Mmmm. Better than worms!

Tap-tap-Tap!

Startled, I looked down at my feet to see Nellie pecking away at my turquoise gardening shoe.

I know chickens are attracted to the color red. In fact, their feeder and waterer are red, and I’ve had more than one chicken peck at my painted toenails when I’m barefoot.

Nellie, Gigi and Loretta take their lawn mowing duties seriously.

Nellie, Gigi and Loretta take their lawn mowing duties seriously.

But turquoise? Apparently Nellie has an affinity for that color. I’ve even caught her hopping up trying to peck at the turquoise part of the tablecloth out back.

With each new day, the girls’ personalities are busting out. Nellie remains the most friendly, even if she constantly pecks at my feet. She allows me to pick her up, and she’s quite the snuggle bunny. Somehow that makes up for her uninvited pinches.

Nellie likes to cuddle with the other chickens, too. In fact, if Gigi or Loretta lay down in a sunbeam, Nellie will walk in close and lay down right on top of them. The girls usually will humor Nellie — for a moment — before giving her the boot.

Gigi (our Olive Egger) loves a dust bath. One moment she’s walking along, then suddenly she’ll drop to the ground and start kicking dirt everywhere. The first time Charlie saw this, he ran over to her all concerned. He shoved his nose in her butt, hoping to revive her. Gigi looked up at him, kicked some sand in his face, then continued bathing. Can’t a girl get some privacy?

And our Marans chicken Loretta seems to be warming up to people. A few days ago I crouched down low (no easy feat!) to take a few pictures of her. Loretta walked up close. Real close. As she quizzically checked out my hands, I snapped away. Then BAM! She bit my finger! My hands must have looked like a handful of meaty grubs. It startled me more than anything, and in the end, I was grateful for my first interaction with Loretta on her terms.

In the garden

Jilli and the fantabulous garden.

Jilli and the fantabulous garden.

I’d like to announce that our garden is just about done. But when is a garden really finished, anyway?

All the vegetables and herbs are in, and in the last few days I’ve focused on adding flowers. So far I’ve planted a ton of marigolds, which are rumored to have bug- and bunny-repelling qualities. Today, I also picked up dwarf zinnia to plant around the cauliflower, calendula to plant near the tomatoes (we’re up to five plants now!) and MORE marigolds to finish the border and plant near the watermelon.

Most importantly, I bought nasturtium to help protect the cucumbers. The leaves have been under attack by either slugs or aphids. At first, we bought a vegetable pesticide in hopes of saving them, then Matt read about nasturtium. Hopefully this will do the trick.

This afternoon I planted a bunch of ornamental flowers in a bed just behind the house, and I plan on planting the veggie-garden-protector flowers tomorrow.

Then will I finally be done with the garden?

I doubt it.

BONUS VIDEO: Moment of Zen, Charlie chills with the chickens.

Week 11: My, how you’ve grown

Nellie, Loretta and Gigi free-range in the yard.

Nellie, Loretta and Gigi free-range in the yard.

After spending a week away from the girls to visit family, I wasn’t sure what I would come to.

As the girls ambled out of the coop, I was amazed at what I saw.

Hey lady! Where have you been?

Bawk-grrrrrrrrrr!

“My how you’ve grown,” I cooed as I looked them over.

Loretta was visibly larger, and Nellie had the start of droopy butt feathers.

And Gigi has started making a sound that sounds like a growl-bawk. As long as it doesn’t develop into a cock-a-doodle-doo, it’s all cool with me.

The biggest development of all, is that the chickens now eat a different feed. For the first 10 weeks, they were on chick starter crumble. Now they have transitioned to grower ration, which has a slightly lower amount of protein than the starter feed. They will eat this until they are 18 weeks old, when they will begin layer feed.

That’s right! Layer feed (and hopefully eggs) are just around the corner. By my calculations, we should be on the lookout for eggs sometime near the end of July!

In the garden

We planted three kinds of cucumbers and built a humungous trellis for them to grow on.

We planted three kinds of cucumbers and built a humungous trellis for them to grow on.

When I bought my house 10 years ago, I fell in love with the yard. The house was OK, but the yard hummed with possibility. Before I even signed my name on the mortgage, I stood out back imagining chickens and an overflowing garden.

At the time, chickens were not legal in Ferndale, and my gardening skills were non-existent. This clearly was clearly just a dream.

Corn and Brussels sprouts.

Corn and Brussels sprouts.

The week my dream came to fruition.

As I let the girls out to free-range in the yard, Matt and I carved out an enormous garden.

While you could say I’m obsessed with chickens, Matt really shines when it comes to growing things. Years ago, when he first saw my yard, I could see the gears turning in his mind.

We started setting up the garden last year bring bringing in truckloads of large rocks to line the border. Then the last few weeks, Matt spent hours weeding. The area is huge, an L-shape that at its length is 40 feet, by 10 feet wide. It’s enormous.

This weekend we spent two days digging, and huffing, and puffing, and digging some more, and sweating … and the end result is a great garden.

A look at the garden. In a few weeks it will be bustling.

A look at the garden. In a few weeks it will be bustling.

We built two trellises, one for three kinds of cucumbers and the other for pole beans. The process was swift: Matt turned the soil, added manure and raked, then I crawled through the dirt on my hands and knees planting everything. After getting caked in mud and achey-breaky knees, I made a trip to the store to pick up real gardening gloves, gardening clogs and a pad to kneel on. Rookie mistake!

The herb garden.

The herb garden.

In the end we have two gardens, one for herbs and a huge one for vegetables.

Our herb garden has basil, cilantro, rosemary, parsley, chamomile, catnip, oregano, thyme, garlic and chives.

The large garden has watermelon, sunflowers, Brussels sprouts, leek, red onion, corn, carrots, cauliflower, red pepper, jalapenos and four kinds of tomatoes.

Tonight we invited Matt’s mom, Sara, over for dinner. We ate in the yard, with the chickens walking around us, clucking away. I took the seat facing the garden.

Who says dreams don’t come true?

BONUS VIDEO: Guess who found the catnip?

Week nine: The daily grind

This week we added stones to border the base of the coop.

This week we added stones to border the base of the coop.

How easy is it to take care of chickens, you ask?

What I know for sure is that the hard part came before the chicks even arrived.

It took us four months to build the chicken coop through blizzards, sub-freezing temperatures and rainfall.

But once those little balls of fuzz arrived, we hit easy street.

Loretta eyes the feeder. Time to eat!

Loretta eyes the feeder. Time to eat!

Now that the girls are settled into the coop, we have a simple routine.

Each morning I wake up at 6:30 a.m. to let the chickens out. First, I take the feeder out of a metal pail, and hang it in the run. (We put the food away every night to discourage little critters and/or predators from breaking into the coop.)

Next, I open the little chicken door that connects the hen house to the run. Usually Gigi, Loretta and Nellie already are awake, and clucking blindly at the door. Once the door opens, all three literally fly out into the run, or tumble down the ramp.

First stop is the feeder, then they gulp down beakfuls of water.

At this point, they are set for the day.

When I get home, I like to let them roam the yard while I unwind from work. I watch as they forage under the yucca bushes, and chase each other once a worm is discovered. Incredibly our dog Charlie and cat Cora are nonplussed from all this action. They seem to understand the girls are family.

At sundown, the chickens seem to have an internal alarm that tells them it’s time for bed. As dusk settles upon the yard, one chicken will walk up the ramp, then the other two will follow. Quite often, they already are snuggled up on a perch before I even open the coop door. Next, I close the guillotine chicken door, put the feeder back into the metal pail and make sure all the doors and windows are locked up.

I also check water levels, and wash out and refill the gallon-waterer every two-to-three days.

I have to say I dreaded the early morning routine before the chicks even arrived. Anyone who knows  me, knows I am not a morning person. But magically, the first day I had to set my alarm at the crack of dawn, I got up and took care of the morning chores. Some days are better than others. I always make it out by 6:30 a.m., but I’m also (sometimes) back in bed by 6:34 a.m. While the chickens have to eat, a girl’s got to sleep!

Judging from the soiled bedding that was removed, you can see where the girls prefer to perch.

Judging from the soiled bedding that was removed, you can see where the girls prefer to perch.

The birds also require weekly chores, mostly involving poop collection. Every Saturday, I open up the hen house, and scoop out the soiled litter. Since the birds mostly spend their time in there perching, their droppings fall in one area, making cleanup easy. Once a month, I empty all the bedding, and put in a fresh layer of pine shavings.

During the week, I will spot-check for droppings in the run. I’ll use my new Stand-n-Scoop to sift through the  sand, and keep the run clean.

In all, I’d say my morning chores take about 4 minutes (I’m not kidding!) and putting everything away in the evening, about the same.

As for the weekly clean out, I’d say that takes about 15 minutes, between scooping, walking the droppings over to the compost and spreading new bedding in the hen house.

And there you have it. The daily grind, at its finest.

How easy is it to take care of chickens, you ask?

It’s really simple.

More than you’d ever believe.

Free range (sort of)

Gigi (foreground) Loretta and Nellie forage the yard.

Gigi (foreground) Loretta and Nellie forage the yard.

Today the girls got a taste of free range life, sort of.

As Matt worked on the yard, I opened the door the coop and let the chickens come and go as they pleased.

The first thing they did was explore the yucca bushes in front of the coop. The bush’s long green leaves held in lots of dried leaves, which the chickens quickly foraged looking for bugs and worms.

Soon they became braver, walking behind the coop, and under a tall bush. Before I knew it they were across the yard, eating grass under an old oak tree.

For a few hours, the girls were able to run around the yard, hopping on bugs, clucking upon each new discovery. I looked to the sky, checking for flying predators. The back part of the yard is sheltered by large trees, but still, I worried about a hawk perching high above and setting eyes on a chicken. I felt like a young mother taking a child to the park for the first time. I repeatedly did a head count, doing my best to watch their every move.

Not exactly free range, I know. But I doubt they noticed. They were busy not being in the coop!

Hopefully these little white fences will keep our dog Charlie out of the new grass seed.

Hopefully these little white fences will keep our dog Charlie out of the new grass seed.

Meanwhile, Matt patched in the bare spots in our yard, adding new topsoil and handfuls of grass seed. He also set up a stone border for a flower garden behind the house, and did a ton of weeding in what will become our first garden.

Matt worked up a sweat, especially while moving some mammoth rocks. He would point out that I was completely composed, not a stitch of dirt on me. I would counter that chicken sitting is serious business. Who else is going to chase Gigi when she has a piece of plastic in her beak?

We eventually used a wagon to move the mini boulders across the yard, and even that was a chore. Did I mention that gardens are a lot of work? And we haven’t even planted a seed yet.

Now that the chickens are all settled in, we’re setting our sights on a large garden. In the next week or two, Matt plans to put in an herb garden. We also have seeds for corn, climbing beans, sunflowers and carrots. We’ll probably go to Eastern Market in Detroit to pick up a few tomato plants and a some other veggies.

We will install a simple fence around the garden area to keep the chickens out of the area. Especially with young plants, it will be important to keep the girls out of the garden to prevent them from scratching up the roots.

Matt found this morel in our front yard.

Matt found this morel in our front yard.

Amid this busy work, Matt managed to find two more morel mushrooms. I still can’t believe our luck. In the 10 years I’ve lived in my house, I always fantasized about morels in my yard, but always settled for driving three hours away to search for them in forests. To find them at home is such a delight!

In the meantime, the chickens already are contributing to the garden’s health. I have been composting their poop, to use as fertilizer.

It’s good to know they are earning their keep!

Officially official!

finalpermitWe’re legal, baby!

For two months now, we’ve had our baby chickens, but we only had a partial approval for the coop. The final OK couldn’t come until the inspector returned to check out our chicks.

In Ferndale, the town where we live, the local ordinance allows only three hens and no roosters. So today’s visit was basically a roll call and gender check.

The inspector was super nice, and the same one who approved our structure in January. Unfortunately, our dog Charlie lost his mind and barked at him like a rabid animal. I had never seen him do this before, and frankly, was mortified. The inspector was good-natured, and said he’d prefer to have Charlie inside, if only to save his clean pants from muddy dog paws. It was only 9 a.m., after all.

After securing Charlie in the house, the inspector and I walked to the coop. He looked closely at the foundation, and cautioned me to watch for small animals burrowing under the rat wall. He marveled at the metal roof, and said the structure was properly weather-proofed.

The girls were hiding out in the hen house, so I opened the door and let him take a peek.

“One-two-three. And they all appear to be girls,” he said.

Gigi, Loretta and Nellie chirped away, oblivious.

He mentioned that the chickens will lay eggs for three to four years. “And then they’re either free-range or free dinner,” he said, with a chuckle.

“Oh, not these girls,” I assured him. “They will move into a happy retirement.”

Before he left, the inspector handed me a green sticker, and told me he would be returning on a yearly basis to inspect the coop and the chickens.

And with that, the Chicken Scratch Fever farm is officially official.

Week eight: Clucky

Loretta is ready for her close up.

Loretta is ready for her close up. Her earlobes are starting to pink up, as well as the beginnings of her wattle.

“CLUCK!”

Up to this point, the girls have made a variety of noises that range from their infant “peeps” to sing-songy trills.

But this time it was undeniable. Loretta goes down as the first chick to cluck.

It was throaty, and confident. Just as I would expect from her.

Hours later there’s a dust-up in the coop, and I hear all three in unison: Bawk-bowk-ba-gawk!!!

The changes are fast, and hard to keep up with. Loretta and Gigi are growing at an unbelievable pace. Loretta towers over everyone, and her butt feathers are fluffed out, hanging low. This all makes her seem even bigger than she is.

Funny enough, Gigi was the biggest chick for the longest time. (Hence her full name: Gentle Giant.) She stands almost as tall as Loretta, but her sleek gray feathers lay tight to her body.

Nellie remains the runt of the litter. But my research shows that her breed — Dominique — grows slowly, then has a spurt after a few months. Still, at full growth she will be smaller than the other two.

As they emerged from the hen house after a fierce rainstorm, I noticed all three are starting to pink up. Their combs are the palest shade of pink, and I’m starting to see the slightest indication of earlobes and waddles. Their bodies and faces continually evolve.

And while they already look like miniature chickens, I know the best developments are yet to come.

BONUS VIDEO:  Charlie surprises himself and has a fun romp with the chicks.